Boasting a 1-0 lead from the first leg thanks to a trademark Olivier Giroud spectacular, Chelsea welcome Atletico Madrid to Stamford Bridge for the second leg of their last-16 Champions League battle on Wednesday evening.
The Blues have one foot in the quarter-finals after claiming a vital narrow win – and away goal – against the La Liga leaders on February 23, and Thomas Tuchel’s unbeaten start to life in London is also at stake this week.
The two European superpowers both head into this game on the back of goalless stalemates at the weekend, as Chelsea were held by Leeds United while Atletico could not get the better of Getafe.
Plenty of supporters would pay good money for a DVD compilation of Olivier Giroud’s best goals during his time in England, as the veteran Frenchman’s outstanding bicycle kick in the 68th minute propelled Chelsea to a famous win in Bucharest during Thomas Tuchel’s inaugural European game in charge.
The immediate joy of Giroud’s acrobatic effort was extinguished due to a lengthy VAR review, but scenes of unbridled delirium followed once the goal was awarded, and Chelsea – with their newfound defensive solidity under Tuchel – managed to keep Luis Suarez and co from finding the back of the net in a crucial away triumph at the National Arena.
Former Chelsea man Joe Cole in particular was quick to criticise Atletico for being a “shadow” of their usual selves, and while the La Liga leaders were certainly expected to produce a more potent attacking performance, Tuchel’s Blues continue to go from strength to strength and fully merited a first-leg advantage ahead of Wednesday’s mouthwatering contest.
However, the Blues were unable to build on back-to-back victories over Merseyside rivals Everton and Liverpool as they could only muster a point from their battle with Leeds at the weekend, with Tuchel lamenting the “very difficult conditions” after the match, but yet another clean sheet marked Chelsea’s fifth shut-out on the bounce, and their staunch defence has only been breached twice since Tuchel took the reins.
The German’s policy of rotation is clearly paying dividends in the capital, although the often-impenetrable trio of Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta have made themselves undroppable over the past couple of months, and Tuchel remains unbeaten in 12 games since taking charge – winning eight and drawing the other four across all competitions.
Incredibly, Wednesday’s hosts are yet to concede a goal at Stamford Bridge during the Tuchel era, but the former Paris Saint-Germain boss could hardly have been handed a more challenging assignment for his first European game in London. However, history certainly favours the 2012 Champions League winners as they dare to dream of another continental crown.
Indeed, Chelsea have never failed to progress in Europe after claiming a first-leg away victory, and Tuchel will hope to follow in the footsteps of nine of Chelsea’s last 10 managers who came up trumps in their first continental game at Stamford Bridge, with the recently-sacked Frank Lampard being the exception after losing 1-0 to Valencia in September 2019.
Furthermore, a team from Spain has never managed to get the better of a Tuchel-led outfit – with the 47-year-old winning two and drawing three matches against sides from the Southwestern European nation, although the Blues have taken the spoils in only two of their last eight continental showdowns on their own turf.
The path to the last eight is not a straightforward one for Tuchel’s resilient charges, and the visit of an Atletico side swearing vengeance is sure to be a true test of their mettle, but Chelsea have successfully gone toe-to-toe with the big boys since the turn of the year and the Stamford Bridge faithful – who would dearly love to be in the stands for this tie – can afford to watch on from home with prudent optimism this week.
At one stage of the season, an Atletico side boasting plenty of games in hand seemed to be cruising towards a long-awaited top-flight crown with Real Madrid and Barcelona both flattering to deceive. However, Diego Simeone’s side have lost their magic touch at the worst possible moment during the business end of the campaign.
In spite of Allan Nyom’s red card with 20 minutes left to play, Getafe followed in Chelsea’s footsteps by preventing the capital outfit from making the net ripple at the weekend, and the Wanda Metropolitano outfit have only mustered three wins from nine matches across all competitions since the start of February.
Despite their dip in form, Atletico remain at the top of the pile in Spain’s premier division, but Barca and Real Madrid are both hot on their trail and will undoubtedly take advantage of any further slip ups the capital outfit may make. However, domestic fortunes take a back seat for now as Simeone attempts to prevail in the tournament that has so often eluded him.
Two-time runners up in 2014 and 2016, Atletico have failed to progress past the quarter-final stage four seasons in a row after they were sent packing in the last eight by RB Leipzig during the 2019-20 campaign, and their hopes of a first ever Champions League crown will be dashed for another year unless the effervescent Suarez can lead the charge with aplomb on his return to English soil.
The former Liverpool man has already struck 18 times domestically this term, but he is yet to make his mark on the Champions League having gone five games without opening his European account, so the importance of an inspired showing from the 34-year-old cannot be understated as he prepares to go head-to-head with a man four months his senior in Giroud.
While Atletico have managed to string a four-game unbeaten run together since their first-leg defeat to the Blues, the Spanish powerhouses have prevailed in just two of their last 10 away knockout matches in Europe’s elite competition, although both of those wins were at the last-16 stage against Bayer Leverkusen and Liverpool in 2017 and 2020 respectively.
Furthermore, a shock 1-0 defeat to Cornella in the Copa del Rey represents Atletico’s sole defeat on rival territory since the turn of the year, and they have navigated their last six away matches in La Liga without defeat – notching up at least two goals in four of those encounters.
With a full contingent available after Kieran Trippier returned from a 10-week suspension, Simeone’s side cannot make any excuses for failing to turn up at Stamford Bridge, and it would be very intriguing indeed to see what effect a heartbreaking Champions League exit could have on their bid for La Liga glory in the coming weeks.